Which Laser Measuring Device is Best for Appraisers?

Posted by | November 05, 2013 | Inspections, Technology | 47 Comments
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Last time, we talked about tablets and which ones were best for appraisers.  The other question that is frequently asked of me concerning Mobile Appraising is that of laser measuring devices.  As you know, there are many of them on the market.  You can go to Home Depot and pick up a laser for around $100, or you can buy something else for as much as $1,000.  As my wife would say, “Now, that’s an expensive toy!”

Why Lasers?

Before we get into the right model, let’s first tackle the question of why an appraiser should even consider a laser for appraisal inspections.  Most appraisers use either wind-up tape measurers or rollers to gather their calculations.  Though these two methods work well in most situations, they are not so great in others.  Sometimes vegetation or other obstacles get in the way of being able to use such tools.  I used a 100’ tape for the first few years of my appraisal career and a roller for the next few.  There came a time when I got tired of crawling under pine trees or getting stuck by thorn bushes.

Lasers allow you to do many things that the traditional measuring tools do not.  Nine times out of ten, you can find a spot to shoot through the branches and get your measurements without crawling through the bushes.  Are they accurate?  Almost too accurate.  I do not personally measure to the nearest millimeter so I have to ‘dumb it down’ a bit—because my Disto does.

Which One?

Since there are many to choose from, which one does the Appraiser Coach prefer?  Well, I am a huge advocate for the Leica Disto.  Leica is a solid company who stands behind its products.  They are well-built and last a lifetime.  Their laser is (in my humble opinion) the brightest one on the market.  That may not seem like a big deal, but on a sunny afternoon on a south-facing wall, it will.  They also provide Pointfinder™ technology which allows you to see the laser dot on the opposite wall if you cannot do so with your naked eye.  This is technology I use about 25%-30% of the time.

Now, you are going to pay more for a Disto.  In some cases, you are going to pay a lot more.  Can you get by with a Bosch from Lowes?  Yes. But I cannot stress enough that you get what you pay for.  On the other hand, what you pay for is also eventually free?  How?  Due to the ability for me to shave 5-7 minutes off each inspection, I was able to do more appraisal volume.  My calculations showed that my first $650 Disto paid for itself in 2.5 months!  What can my wife say against that?

Though I carry my 100’ tape in the car as a backup, I have had a Disto for about 13 years now and have used the backup less times than I have fingers on one hand.  Each time I had to use the tape was when I had either forgotten my Disto or forgotten to put backup batteries in the vehicle.  It has never been because the wall or house was too difficult to measure with a laser.

Now, go create some value!

 

Dustin Harris is a multi-business owner, but he has found most of his success as a self-employed, residential real estate appraiser. He has been appraising for nearly two decades. He is the owner and President of Appraisal Precision and Consulting Group, Inc., and is a popular author, speaker and consultant. He owns and operates The Appraiser Coach where he personally advises and mentors other appraisers helping them to also run successful appraisal companies and increase their net worth.  His principles and methodologies are also taught in an online, Mastermind group. He and his wife reside in Idaho with their four children.

 

47 Comments

  • Larry Noe says:

    Mr. Harris,

    Excellent article! As soon as I can afford to buy one, I’ll do it. Currently I use an “Original Loggers Tape.” It is retractable and won’t be damaged if you run over it with your Mac truck (at least, I suspect that). The Original Loggers Tape is tough and is used in most commercial logging operations. It can be worn on the hip via handy belt-loop clip and if an unfriendly mutt attacks you while your measuring, it makes a good weapon (if you’re resourceful). It cost me about $60 and the tape can be replaced if damaged. The only modification I’ve made is to add a hook to the end so it can grasp better while measuring. But after business picks up, I’ll will try a laser. Thanks again!

    • Joy Cole says:

      How did you add a hook to the tape.

      • Larry Noe says:

        Hello Joy: My newly adopted son (an ex-Navy Seal) did it for me. He took a VERY THICK piece of wire, bent it into an “S” shape, hooked one end of the “S” to the little “L” shaped hook provided on the end of the tape, and then closed that end of the wire with a pair of plyers. He sharpened the end of the wire so it will easily grasp almost anything. It can even be shoved into the ground and will hold.

  • Charlie Williamson says:

    Dustin…….I’ve tried both. 1st the tape and then the Disto. By far the Disto wins in my opinion. It took about 4 inspections to master the technique and I’m a firm believer in its time savings and accuracy. I highly recommend it if you want to save time and get a more accurate reading. In our business time is money.

  • Dustin, I’ve tried Tape, Wheel, and a couple of lasers and by far the Disto is the most convenient and like you said takes off 5-10 minutes off measuring time alone. I have had 3 including my first (Disto plus) which IS 10 years old. It was repaired once by a local electronics shop (my son and his friends played soccer with it on my car floor!!). Even the first (plus) had blue tooth which allows you to communicate a drawing directly to your smart phone or tablet which then can be uploaded to certain appraisal software there by saving even more time. Do what ever you can to get one. As with anything new it will take a little adjustment to use it but once there you’ll wonder how you lived with out it (much like the gps)!!

    • Larry Noe says:

      Thanks Antonio. The last sentance of your comment made me really want to try a laser. Maybe someday my loggers tape will serve as a back-up and I’ll be in the 21st century with you!

  • When measuring a house about as many walls turn away from you as turn out. Those that turn away give you nothing to shoot at. What do you do then?

  • Glenn Duncan says:

    Thats the same question I have. What about walls that turn away, how do you shoot them?

  • Charlie Williamson says:

    There’s always a point you can shoot to……then you use your Plus (+) and/or (-) buttons as you walk down a wall.

    • Charlie, there are many tricks you will pick up. You can shoot at downspouts,shot beyond the edge of the house and subtract…

      I carry the cardboard back of a legal pad and wedge it between the house and downspout if the spout is not on the side I am measuring. You can also shoot to an object in the middle of the side (fireplace, electric meter, a/c…).

      Another trick is that you can shoot through glass. This is helpful on an enclosed porch or garage.

  • Laser measures are like pizza – some are better than others, but even the worst one is still good. I haven’t used a tape to measure a subject in over 6 years.

    I have a Disto D-5 (over 6 years old), but I would suggest the Home Depot/Lowes special for $130 to start off.

  • Dale says:

    I can appreciate the information you provide and always read through it with great interest. I do have a comment about the justification you use for the allocation of the cost of the laser and the production time you save.
    I don’t understand how shaving 5-7 minutes off the inspection allows you to produce additional appraisal volume. Most appraisals take me anywhere from 4-8 hours depending on the complexity and this includes the inspection time. Saving even 7 minutes in an 8 hour day cannot be moved into the next days production time. If you did 7 inspections a day you would saved 49 minutes in that day but have already worked 7 hours (at a 1 hour inspection time) PLUS an hour total travel time for the whole day (that we all know is not within reason).
    So are we justifying the minutes saved and allocating the cost per baseline production, or can the savings be justified monetarily against the increased production of the additional reports?
    Sorry for the question, but I have been trying to justify purchasing an $800 Laser but there has to be an increase in orders of which I am not sure can be covered in the amount of time I have in a day by saving 7 minutes per report.
    Respectfully,

    Dale Bailey

    • Dale, first of all, you don’t need the $800 model. I have a Disto D5 which will run about $400. But I could have gotten away with the Lowes/HomeDepot model for under $150.

      Time saving isn’t the only reason to get one- although it is a good one. Laser is more accurate; it is cleaner – how many times does the tale get wet from rain or dew and then get dirty – getting your hands dirty?; It looks more professional to the homeowner; It is easier to measure hard to reach places.

    • Dale: It is a great question and I welcome it. It takes me about 4-5 hours to do an appraisal and I do an average of 3.25 per day. If I am saving 5-10 minutes per appraisal, I will be able to save 20-25 minutes per day. That is 400 minutes or the equivalent of doing another appraisal per month that I would not be able to do otherwise. If I get paid $400 per appraisal, it only takes two months to pay for the Disto. I agree that reality is not reflective of these exact numbers, but the savings over time is undeniable. If it takes me 6-12 months to pay for it (with the increased business), it is still worth it in my mind. I still got a free Disto and it will last me decades.

    • Dax says:

      Dale, I use a Hilti and that seems to work well in most situations. The model the model I use is pretty basic and doesn’t have all the high end wizardry. However, it works VERY well and does exactly what I need it to do. Another advantage of using the laser measuring tool is you look more professional to the home owner. If you are using the tape or wheel and the last guy used the laser, what is that going to say to the home owner when you come in 5% lower. you can buy a good one online on ebay for $400. If your still not convinced buy a nicer used one. However, I would recommend that that you get one with a + and – button.

  • Paul Tomsheck says:

    Hello all.
    One issue I have never heard anyone address regarding laser measuring devices is how well they work on complicated interior 2nd level architecture. Anyone willing to share some of the techniques that they have had to develop &/or recommend a device that works better on this issue?
    Thanks much,
    –Paul

    • Paul- Again, see the Mobile Training Package above. In it, I show you how to do a complicated second story with video. BTW: If you use “AppraiserCoach2013″ as a coupon, you can use the $80 link rather than the $97 one.

  • Used my Distro for several years eventually it quit and was not repairable. To save time and $ purchased a Craftsman, while not as versatile found it to be brighter in bright light. Would purchase Distro again if it were more reasonably priced. Am happy with Craftsman.

  • Paul by the time I walk down the wall, place cardboard by the downspout I could have taped it with my $25 wind-up and still have to go back to the starting point to shoot with the laser. Yes my hands do get dirty sometimes, but water takes care of that. And when triangulating, one still has to have a target to shoot at. I agree that it may appear more professional. I have used all three, wheel, tape and laser and am not convinced yet that the tape is not best for me. As to accuracy, I suspect that either device, used correctly, is accurate.

    • Gerald: I appreciate what you are saying, but I have never had to use targets. I agree that they are counterproductive. There are always things to bounce off of (even when you think there are not). Watch my videos and get the training package. That is the best way to explain how. All the best, my friend!

    • Lorin says:

      I’ve been using a tape for 25 years and have yet to be convinced that the laser is better. If there is a problem with hillsides, landscaping, weather etc. I measure from inside the house and allow for the thickness of walls. Typically I can hook my tape to a window in the front and walk straight back to the rear of the house to get an accurate depth measurement, and then again for width. During the inspection for the individual rooms, I make allowances for cut-ins, bump-outs, etc. with a sonic measurer ($38). The other aspect is with the popularity of tablets in our field, which I love, but the big issue is daylight. I can’t read my tablet or cell phone in the daylight and have to search for darkness which is time consuming and awkward (no-professionalism there). I’m not in favor of spending $500 for a laser that I can’t read. I’m ready to bet anyone that I can measure a house with a tape just as fast as a laser and just as accurate.

    • Larry Noe says:

      Gerald: If you ever need to buy another tape you might consider The Loggers Tape. It costs more than you’re used to, but the tape that is housed inside the rectrackter can be replaced for about $20 if it is ever broken. My Loggers Tape is 100′ and cost about $60.

  • jessica stein says:

    I regret I will be unable to attend Las Vegas in November. Your email postings intrigue me, by I cannot fathom doing 3.5 finished appraisals per day. I have been doing this for 40 years and have had backup staff for 20. I live in a very rural community with non-conforming properties which require alot of comps to bracket, generally 8-10. I understand your model may work in a conforming city, but can it help the rural appraisar?

  • Patricia Lucas says:

    I have used my laser for several years and at times wonder how I got along without it…I live/appraise in Maine; ever tried to roll a wheel or use a tape through the snow?? Before getting my first laser I would have to strap on my snow shoes, work my way around the subject and hope for the best. Now, during the snow season I measure internally and add for the exterior walls etc. During times of the year that I can measure externally I absolutely do and then I when I get inside I use the laser just to make sure that my exterior (roller) mesurements are accurate (it also makes it a bit easier when doing the sketch for proper room placement etc)…
    I use a Bosch laser which works perfectly and I didn’t pay $800 for it; just sayin’.

  • jessica stein says:

    I live in Gold Hill Oregon. When I worked in San Jose CA I did alot more work in less time, made alot more money due to conforming properties and lots of comps. I now spend 12 hour days, 6+ days a week doing more work. I have a full time assistant 40 hrs a week and either I have no work or too much. Turn times are 48 hours which includes weekends, and covering two rural counties. Just driving comps is a killer due to mountainous terrain bisected by rivers which means one way in and one way out. I cant drive to site (1 hr+), wrap up an inspection if no outbildings, stables, barns (1hr)drive comps (2hrs) back to office hoping to bracket all factors and wordsmith the appraisal why I cant meet every line item criteria.

    • Sounds exactly like the terrain I cover and I did exactly what you are doing for too many years. All the best to you!

    • Larry Noe says:

      Jessica: For those who want more money, let them move to metro areas, drive crowded roads, and live in a stress-filled environment while you and I enjoy the beauty of Oregon and make enough money to pay our bills. Most AMC’s are a pain, but when they produce new and foolish rules, I tell them exactly what I think of their additional rules and I use my regular my email address to do it (so they know exactly who I am). None of them have fired me for speaking the truth. I’d rather dig a ditch for a living or put up a tent under a bridge than live in stress while striving to compete with other appraisers for $$.

  • JF Appraiser says:

    I can’t over emphasize how much EASIER lasers are. Economics has nothing to do with it. The time saved means a shorter wok day. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the 100′ tape is faster and it took years before I learned what a 30′ steel tape can do. I carry all three and use what ever is most efficient at any given moment. Measuring complex homes, particularly the second floors are far easier with a laser. Fewer wet/sticky bushes, over the mountain of stuff in a garage, over fences, I could go on. You’ll learn the tricks. I’ve have 2 distos, one is retired with a cracked case. Paid something like $800 for the first one, never regretted it. The second one off ebay for a couple hundred. The laser’s weakness is in bright light over long distances. Look for features that help you find the dot. My eyesight is not what it was and I regret not paying more for that feature. As always, you get what you pay for.

  • Michael says:

    I’ve read every comment, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to rely on a laser. If I have to walk down a wall to place something and then walk back to measure. It takes more time. I can see spotting to a gutter, but they don’t always exist on the opposite side. I’ve heard about measuring to fences, and subtracting the extra distance, but I work in a semi-rural setting, and I have more round trees then flat fences. My first years I taped houses, but abandoned that for the roller over 30 years ago. I can measure accurately the typical house in under 7 minutes, or about as much time as it takes to walk around it, and if it is simple (2-3 minutes). If necessary, it rolls along interior walls, add and subtracts (rolling backward), all with the greatest of ease. SO its hard to imagine saving 5-7 minutes per house. If the laser can put the numbers into my sketch that will be time savings, but I suspect it still will have to be squared. My only regret is that they don’t make rolling tape measures as well as they used to, and when they go down, I have to pull my old cloth measure with its infamous big hook out of my trunk, which invariably takes a long time to find, as it gets used so so rarely. Please correct me where I am wrong, but my trusty Rolatape has been an essential part of my equipment for decades. And the clients like it too. They are certainly impressed. I’ll admit the roller isn’t perfect, but from what I’ve read none are, this one just as less imperfections.

    • Michael: Though I hear what you are saying, I am a firm believer in the Laser. I too work a very rural market and I have yet to find a wall I could not shoot with the laser, and I do not use hand-placed targets. There is always something to bounce off of. Just sayin…. :)

  • Roy says:

    I broke down and bought my Disto over five years ago, and can’t believe the time it saves. Not to mention the snow banks I no longer have to climb over, or spiders I avoid by not crawling behind bushes. I paid around $500 for it. My son saw a Bosch at a pawn shop for $25 (retail around $100), and it’s about a third of the size and weight of the Disto, so now I carry that around in my pocket, and find it a lot more convenient. The 100′ tape stays in the car as a backup, and on really sunny days, or on long manufactured homes with no easy target for the laser, it works fine. Wheels are not particularly accurate, just raising your arm a few inches can change the measurement, and they don’t work inside.

  • Lorin says:

    I’m reading that most appraisers here are in rural or semi-rural areas. I, on the other hand, live and work in a major city where the standard SFR is built-out to 25′ wide lots, and while the houses are technically detached, they ‘butt’ up to each other like row houses. We also have a high percentage of condos to measure. In either case, exterior measurements are less likely to happen. Nonetheless, I still can’t get over the idea of fumbling with a laser that costs $500+/- when I’ve dropped my sonic measurer ($38) in toilets, on cement floors, etc. … but it does only takes one hand to operate so I can hold my tablet in the other. How do others physically maneuver using 2 hands on the laser and record the measurements on a tablet or clipboard too? To me this seems more time consuming than necessary.

    • I hold everything in one hand by attaching the laser to the back of the tablet and using the tablet to take my pictures. One hand is always free for other things. Works great. BTW: I would take on your challenge any time any place. :)

  • Greg says:

    Good article and even more interesting comments. I work in NYC. If you walk into a 2-million condo with some of the antiquated measuring instruments mentioned by some of these appraisers you may have a complaint to answer to.
    Listen, nothing beats a laser. It makes you look sophisticated and very professional. It is operated with one hand. You point shoot and move on.

  • Marc says:

    My preference for targets are the “super sticky post it notes” They stick to just about anything including brick and painted aluminum. There usually isn’t more than 1 or 2 hard to reach spots on even the most complex properties and I don’t bother walking back and forth to get the sheets, I just stick one on where I am at, walk to the next spot and shoot back. I don’t go back for the paper until I am done and just make 1 quick trip around the perimeter. I picked up 1080 of them in 4′x4′ pads for $9. If the weather is really bad I have blue tack and a couple pieces of white plastic I can carry in a pocket.

  • Dillon says:

    If you want accuracy, then the Leica-Disto is the way to go. The Bosch is made by Leica, however has a smaller display, and laser dot that is more difficult to see. The Bosch is too weak in bright light (makes a good back up). When you don’t have anything to bounce it off of, or it is too restrictive, go inside and measure and add on for the walls. Sure beats getting wet or stuck.

  • John router says:

    I contract this work to the NSA that provides satellite imagery for my appraisal

    What the hell, no expense is too great when we are being paid $ 300 to do an appraisal that was $ 250 more than 20 years ago

  • Brad Hoff says:

    I us a combination of 100′ tape and Disto. Have had it over 15 years and I think it is one of the first models out. Tape used maybe 30% of the measurements. I am in Washington with lots of brush and other obstacles around homes. When ever I have something to hit, it is the Disto. Never got the hang of triangulation so I just tape the open walls that have nothing to hit. I do not know how anyone measures the second floor without a laser. That it the only way to go. I remember the days of dragging a tape over beds and other obstacles. Basements and 2nd floors are laser only. At least 50% of of the homes here have more than one story so just the time and effort saved on the 2nd floor is worth the cost.

  • Shari says:

    Which Disto would you buy if you were buying today? I am going to be ordering one before year end and my research indicates the Disto 5?

    • Dustin Harris says:

      Shari:

      Thank you for your question. I personally like the E7500i so much that I may buy one even though I cannot seem to break my other ones. It has bluetooth to the tablet (including iOS) and also has the angle measurement feature allowing me to measure to eaves when there is nothing to bounce things off. If you are interested, go to distagage.com and use the code AppraiserCoach at checkout for 10% off.

  • Rachel says:

    Which Leica Disto Model do you use?

    • Dustin Harris says:

      I use several different models. I have an A-6, a Disto Plus, and my current favorite is the D810.

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